The Burn

10 06 2008

Bonfire from Tim and Mary\'sThe attic above the barn is full of the detritus of a few lives, and it is long past time to start weeding out mine, which is the only one I can really control. I have a box or two of papers from my grandmother’s house, photos of people without names, places without markers, and the attending cool stuff — a lock of hair from my great uncle Kenneth the Communist on the Run! My grandfather’s wool thermals, still itchy! Someone else’s relatives! This stuff is savable. Maybe when the lobotomy takes, I’ll sit over a scanner and send all this material to the hard drive and . . . do something with it.

In another corner are the school papers from the kids. Growing year by year. That will get sorted. . . later. But there, haunting me, in another corner, is my stuff, the trails of my life: Old resumes and photos (hmm, save those), letters from the expat friends during high school and college and beyond. Old check books, phone bills, and, more powerfully, the box of notebooks that represented the proof that I fancied myself a working writer. Books full of diary notes that begin, “well, that was a long time,” or “why can’t I just sit and do this?” or “Save this: it’s a great idea without a story.” Yeah. I really got right on all those ideas. At one time, when I tried harder than usual, it was all very handy to fill a legal pad and put it in the stack (Stowe #11). But where was the work? The connection of dots? True, I put enough together, once upon a time, to apply to, get accepted and attend Bread Loaf. And that is an achievement and something to look back on with rose-colored lenses, because it put me once more on the periphery of a world I had high hopes for myself to join, or to partake. It was high falutin’, no doubt.

It was at Bread Loaf where I first planted the seed, first really forced my creative hand and made myself make a decision about what I was going to call myself. Writer? Hmmm. I remember it took me a few days to soak in the bottom line, to try to take away the core of why I was even there. There was plenty of “bed loaf” action around us (watch out for those poets!) and plenty of coy student-teacher dialogue and plenty of the caste system and plenty of the nightly celebrations (Robert Pack’s last year). I even met an excellent friend. But I kept watching and listening and talking and listening — some of the best listening I have probably done — and in the weeks and months that followed, after reading the books I bought from the writers who came, after totaling the sum of all the information I collected, I took from it the simplest and best advice ever: You’ll write when you really want to write.

Being someone who cannot readily define what I want (as opposed to what I don’t want), it has always been easy to take this kind of advice and file it away, because it is easy to say that I don’t really want to do anything, be it write, the laundry, the dishes, my work, what have you. Wanting to be a writer* connotes that I will be carving out a schedule every day to write, to practice, to think and to put out on paper my thoughts, be it in diary form or as part of a draft of a story. But it is work, and it is a commitment to work. Over time, that clearly wasn’t the way I was going to be.

*As if I needed more a sign, I almost always mistype “writer” as “writher”.

I found that remaining a “writer” would require some output, some product, some art that would qualify me, at least on my Schedule C. The drag, psychologically, is that the failure to produce was attached to me, like a thread on a sweater that is unravelling. I saw the thread, but never cut it. Never cutting it somehow in a twisted way honored it, even if I wasn’t honoring it by doing it. Very alcoholic behavior which I did not exacerbate by drinking the pain away. Which makes me not a writer. Or a drinker with a writing problem. It just metastasized differently.

To cut it away, I decided two years ago, or whenever we last brought a dumpster in, to either chuck or burn my notebooks. Without them RIGHT UP THERE AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, IN THAT WOODEN BOX I FOUND ON A STREET CORNER IN BROOKLYN IN 1989, I will release the onus of being a writer, and simply be one, if that is what I want. Clearly no story idea I had over the last 20 years ever came to fruition, and rather than considering the burn as the death of little embryos, perhaps I will consider them the frozen in vitro blastocysts that have to be disposed after their expiration date. If they were worth anything, they’ll be reincarnated.

Until then, and until the burn, I continue to try to empty out my cluttered attic of a mind as it is represented by these kinds of objects. The notion of a museum is only compelling if it is not my stuff, and in the end, at the end, my children will have to decide what all to keep. But I get to decide what makes it to the end, and it will be much healthier if I can rid myself of it on my own.

The burn, then, represents a cleansing, of course. Like sterilizing a needle before using it to pierce an ear. Or a release, cutting one of the many tethers from a dirigible. It can simply be the symbol of choosing to look forward without being haunted by what could have or should have been, if only in the fiction of my own mind.



One response

25 06 2008

I have been working on a response to this, as it seems so drastic in a way. And I started to think of some of the boxes I have in the attic. Some are notebooks, but most of it are letters (and, of course, programs). I’ve kept all the letters I’ve received (remember letters?) since college. When I moved them from that beat old UHaul box to a plastic container, it was fun to look at a few. A number were from you, of course. It was nice to know they were still around.

So my thought is this – rather than burning, why not just consider those notebooks letters from your past and buy a clean, shiny, new notebook?

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